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Rashida Tlaib’s thobe and Ilhan Omar’s hijab are making congressional history

There’s even a hashtag: #TweetYourThobe.

Ilhan Omar of Minnesota wears a hijab to the swearing-in ceremony on January 3.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Thursday is a historic day for the federal government: As Democrats take over the House of Representatives amid a shutdown with no end in sight, the first two Native American women and the first two Muslim women will be sworn into a Congress with more women overall serving than ever before.

To mark the occasion, some first-term Congress members are standing out in more ways than one: During the swearing-in ceremony, instead of the typical congressional suit in a muted tone, Rashida Tlaib will wear a traditional Palestinian thobe. It’s a long tunic, often made of cotton and decorated with heavy embroidery, and worn for various occasions all over the Middle East. Tlaib’s is a deep burgundy with red embroidery.

Tlaib is the first Palestinian American woman to be elected to Congress, representing Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, which includes parts of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. She’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and she’s championed progressive policies like a $15 minimum wage, debt-free college, and Medicare-for-all, as well as the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the impeachment of President Trump.

On a day when all eyes will be on her, Tlaib is paying tribute to her heritage. On December 14, the then-representative-elect posted a photo of the thobe she planned to wear with the hashtag #ForMyYama, the word for mother in Arabic. In an essay for Elle, Tlaib explained the choice, writing, “Throughout my career in public service, the residents I have had the privilege of fighting for have embraced who I am, especially my Palestinian roots. This is what I want to bring to the United States Congress, an unapologetic display of the fabric of the people in this country.”

The thobe also has personal meaning to Tlaib, who wrote about how her mother grew up in a small farming village in the West Bank and only received an eighth-grade education before dropping out to make dresses in a tailor shop in order to provide for her family. “As a young girl, I watched my mother hand stitch thobes while sitting on the floor with a lamp at her side,” Tlaib wrote. “She would make the small designs of flowers and different shapes. Just thinking about it brings up so many memories of my mother and how proud she was of being Palestinian.”

The post inspired others to share their own on Instagram and Twitter, using the hashtag #TweetYourThobe. Tlaib also encouraged others to wear activist shirts on January 3.

The video below shows Tlaib in her thobe alongside her adorable dabbing children:

Already, Congress looks a lot more colorful than in years past: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the youngest members of Congress ever elected, and Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman representative from Massachusetts, won on progressive platforms while also publicly referencing their clothing and beauty choices. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted the exact shade of lipstick she wore during a debate in June. During Pressley’s victory speech, she asked the audience, “Can a congresswoman wear her hair in braids, rock a black leather jacket and a bold red lip?”

During the ceremony, Ocasio-Cortez will wear a crisp white pantsuit — which has become a popular feminist homage to suffragists — hoop earrings, and her signature lipstick. In a tweet the next day, she explained that the lipstick and hoops were inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-colored nail polish to her confirmation hearing, but wore red anyway. “Next time someone else Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, wore a traditional Pueblo dress and turquoise jewelry to the swearing-in ceremony. On Thursday morning, she tweeted, “New Mexicans are in the house, the US House that is.”

The first-term female Congress members elected in November’s midterms have single-handedly helped create a more diverse Congress — and they’ve done so while wearing their identity proudly rather than assimilate to the old-fashioned uniform of dark suits for the House and Senate.

Their platforms and policies are more important in the grand scheme of things than what they wear, of course. But the embrace of their heritage and identity is already changing the rules in Congress. Ilhan Omar, who is one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress (Tlaib is the other), will be the first person to wear a hijab in Congress. Though she’s worn a hijab throughout her campaign, hats and head coverings have been banned in the House since 1837, a rule Omar pushed to change even before she was sworn in. The 181-year-old rule will be overturned as of January 3, formally allowing religious garments like hijabs and yarmulkes, as well as head coverings for illness and hair loss.

As Omar tweeted in December in response to a conservative pastor who complained that Congress will look like “an Islamic republic”: “Well sir, the floor of Congress is going to look like America ... and you’re gonna have to just deal.”

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